DUSHANBE Tajikistan plans to create a volunteer-run body to monitor Internet use and reprimand those who openly criticize President Imomali Rakhmon and his government, the head of the Central Asian country's state-run communications service said on Friday.
Beg Zukhurov said the organisation, while awaiting official registration, had already brought several Internet users to task for publishing "insults" against "well-known personalities" in the former Soviet republic.
"Volunteers for this organisation will track down and identify the authors of such comments," Zukhurov told reporters. He did not elaborate on what might constitute critical comment.
Asked what would happen to anybody identified by the new organisation, he replied: "I don't know. Probably, they will be shown the error of their ways."
Rakhmon has ruled Tajikistan, a mountainous country of 7.5 million people bordering Afghanistan and China, for two decades. Though media operate with less restrictions than in neighboring Uzbekistan, journalists have been detained in recent months.
Rakhmon is widely expected to stand again for election by November 2013. Victory would secure seven more years as leader of the mainly Muslim country, whose economy is founded on aluminium and cotton exports and remittances from around 1 million migrant laborers.
Tighter Internet controls echo measures taken by other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where authoritarian rulers are wary of the role social media played in revolutions in the Arab world and mass protests in Russia.
Government opponents in Tunisia and Egypt used Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to run rings around censors and organize protests that eventually toppled their leaders.
"There will be chaos," said Parvina Ibodova, chairwoman of the Association of Internet Providers of Tajikistan. "The sacred principle of every journalist and every citizen - access to information - will be under threat."
In a sign that authorities are already clamping down on public criticism, an 18-year-old student in Dushanbe said he had recently been detained overnight by the successor agency to the KGB after posting criticism of Rakhmon on his Facebook page.
The student, who was too afraid to be identified, said he had been lectured repeatedly on his conduct. He was not charged with any offence.
"They told me it was dangerous to 'rally people against the president' and that 'everything he does is for the good of the people'," he said. "It was scary. After that, I deleted all my social networking accounts."
Tajikistan briefly blocked access to Facebook and two Russian-language sites that published an article critical of Rakhmon in March. The shutdown was ordered by the communications service, which works as a government agency.
Facebook's popularity has soared in Tajikistan. Membership of the social networking website doubled there last year to 26,000 people and several groups openly discuss politics, with some users critical of the authorities.
"People let off steam on the Internet," said Zebo Tajibayeva, executive director of independent information agency ASIA-Plus. "If you close the lid of a boiling pot too tight, it will simply explode."
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Myra MacDonald)